So cast down is she, that not only does she fail to buy a book, but also pours her heart out to her friend, who happens to be a children's book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. Her friend doesn't point her in the direction of writers such as Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison or Sarah Dessen. Instead she writes this article, in which she asks whether YA literature has become too dark.
'Teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.' wrote Meghan Cox Gurden.
The angry response was articulate and immediate. Under the hashtag #yasaves, people tweeted about how they'd been helped by Young Adult fiction. Writers such as Maureen Johnson dissected and dismissed Ms Gurden's arguments here, accusing her of under-estimating teenage readers' ability to process stories, wishing to ban darker themes.'Those books you so glibly dismiss...that's fine. But that may be a book that changes or even saves someone's life.'
Now, as a writer, I'm mostly on Maureen Johnson's side.I don't believe that books for teenagers should be censored or sanitised; bad things happen to teenagers and should be part of their books. If one looks at their entire cultural experience - films and television included - then why should books be tame in comparison?
I do believe that teens might be helped by reading about people with problems, in particular they might have more ideas about how to help a friend who has problems. Books promote empathy and understanding. Reading is a completely safe experience - nothing could be safer - and a reader is free to stop reading if they find something distressing.
However. This is all to do with the writer's experience, and the reader's. What about the gatekeepers..the editors, librarians, teachers and parents? What is their role? Should they stand back and allow writers complete freedom? Or are there roles to play in guidance, protection, setting boundaries? This, it seems to me, is the question that Meghan Cox Gurden is asking, and she goes about it in a more subtle and nuanced way than her critics allow.
On Facebook recently I read a conversation about rude words in a book for ten year olds. Could the writer get away with 'crap' and 'shit'? Surely it was unrealistic and old-fashioned to expect that modern youngsters would react to a big shock with anything softer?
In an instant, my anti-censorship writer's hat came off and my mother-of-a primary-age-kid-hat came on. I do not want my son coming home from school with books full of swearing, thank you very much. That can wait until he is at secondary school. I battle at home to teach him that some words are appropriate and some are not, I expect those writing for his age group to back me up. If not...fine...I'm not buying their books.
Secondary school is different. By that age you know your child will hear and probably use swearwords all the time - in the playground. They won't hear them (one hopes) in the classroom. When I was writing When I Was Joe, I knew Ty would swear a lot, and I wondered how I could accurately reproduce his inner voice. In the end, I decided to imagine that he was telling his story to an adult he respected. The most taboo words would only slip through at times of great stress.
Some will be helped by graphic descriptions of - say - self harm. Others might be tempted to give it a go. Others - the majority, I imagine - will find it curiously interesting and even exciting to find out about something that is mostly secret. (This voyeurism is something I touch on in When I Was Joe). That's normal, I imagine. Self harm is part of life, and all too often part of teenage life. I've heard about people who haven't been able to read beyond this section of my book. I've even heard of someone who gave self-harming a go after reading it. I hope that neither reaction is widespread.
I completely accept that for some vulnerable teenagers, self-harming is probably not a great thing to read about. It may trigger an existing or dormant problem, it may be very upsetting, it may stir old memories. Those teens may encounter my book and others like it, and decide not to read it. Or they may be sensitively guided away by parents, librarians and teachers.That's what the gate-keepers are there for...not banning or censoring.
I'm less worried by graphic descriptions and profanity in YA than Meghan Cox Gurden. There are other things that worry me though, which she doesn't mention. I can't bear books which present death and an afterlife almost as lifestyle options, blurring the distinction between life and death with a range of cool 'undead' options. I don't like books which allow warnings about sex to obscure the fact that grls can enjoy a good sex and healthy sex life, which is not defined by men. Violence is a part of our lives - but how far should a writer go before that violence is excessive and gratuitous?
As a writer, I tackle these things in my books. As a mother, I try and read the books my children read and am prepared to discuss them. As both I am grateful for the help I recive from the 'gatekeepers' in discussing where lines - if any - should be drawn.
I'm also not so keen on traditional 'issue' books, in which one person has one problem, it is described and dissected, and eventually eliminated with the help of a wise counsellor. I fear that may serve to make kids feel as though most people are normal and only a few are 'suffering', and that help can only come from external and adult sources. My books try and reflect the muddle of 'issues' which make up life - and the diverse ways in which help may or may not arrive. Most of us are pretty resilient, and few meet the right cousellor at the right time.
Life as a teenager can be wonderful. It can also be tough beyond belief. Sometimes it's like a light, frothy romance, at other times the grittiest, gloomiest book cannot capture the sheer confusing screwed-up mess that teens can fall into. As a writer, I hope my books will help readers understand themselves, the world about them, and other people. As a mother buying a present for a daughter - well, sometimes I'd turn away from those dark, dystopian shelves.
The book I'm writing at the moment contains some scenes of drug-taking. My reading group were unsure about those scenes. Could they give this book to their children? Would they be seen as endorsing drugs? I'm not going to censor myself in response to their worries. But nor do I think they are necessarily wrong. I think I tend to write books which teens will find for themselves, rather than be given to them by a parent.
I met a publicist for Walker Books at the Hay festival last week and she's just sent me two very different books - Michelle Gayle's Pride and Premiership and Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd's A Monster Calls. One is light and funny and about the world of footballers' girlfriends. The other is a powerful, compelling modern-day fable about cancer, fear and loss. I'm delighted with both - thank you so much, Ruth - and I look forward to reading them. And I know exactly which one my daughter needs this particular week.